Mediation & Conciliation Service: in the Middle of the Fray

This is the first of an occasional series in which DIR Bulletin takes a more in-depth look at the separate components, from divisions to people, who make up DIR.

On any given day the state's Mediation and Conciliation Service (SMCS) can be found solving labor disputes in rural communities, or in the midst of a metropolitan transit strike involving thousands of disgruntled workers-and stranded commuters.

It's the never ending and, according to State Mediation and Conciliation Service Supervisor Peter Lujan, the never boring part of the job for DIR's 14 mediators. SMCS operates from its San Francisco headquarters with regional offices in San Diego, Los Angeles and Fresno.

The divergence of how the Service touches different labor negotiations across the state shows how vast its shadow falls. SMCS has been called to help reconcile a dispute involving a single city employee-and then jumps into the middle of complicated and often bitter disputes, such as a recently settled teachers strike in San Diego.

Though one of DIR's smallest units, the Service played a key role in 1994 in preventing a strike at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART), which could have stranded the system's 255,000 riders. It also helped shorten a 1994 strike involving the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in Los Angeles that left more than 500,000 commuters with limited transportation.

Jurisdiction of the Service extends to every labor dispute throughout the state, as long as a majority of the employees work within the state. Labor Code sections and Public Utilities Code chapters provide for its involvement with agriculture, mass transit, public schools, higher education and all forms of government and special districts.

Just within the state's education system-which can affect millions of students and school personnel-negotiations will have a far-reaching effect that must be handled in the best possible manner. The role of the Service is simple, Lujan said, fix what is broken and move on to the next debate.

"We're not really the negotiators," Lujan said. "We serve as the catalyst of communication between the parties. We're the ones who bridge the gap between the employees and management." Lujan has added three mediators recently: Curtis Lyon, Shirley Campbell and Micki Callahan will provide key experience at the negotiation table along with keen insight to much of the private talks which take place before formal talks begin, Lujan said.

Mediators must be familiar with state and federal laws relating to labor negotiations and disputes, labor relations in the public sector, collective bargaining policies and practices, and settlement of employee grievance and contract disputes.

Additionally, SMCS can provide arbitrators to requesting parties when required as a part of the grievance procedure. The Service maintains 250 names it can draw from to provide a neutral party who essentially acts as a judge in a labor dispute and gives a written decision.

Lujan said he prefers mediation over arbitration because it creates an informal process allowing the participants to reach their own agreement.

Rarely do labor negotiations under the Service's control move into the state's legal system, Lujan said.

There is no limit to where the Service will go to help resolve labor issues. The negotiating it gets involved with is limited only to the two sides, and whether the sides are interested in having outside neutrals mediate their dispute. "Whether we're dealing with one person or with 25,000 people, it makes no difference to us," Lujan said.

Clearly the policy of the Service is to get business back on track. Lujan said his mediators understand the dynamics involved in bringing a negotiation to a successful conclusion.

When mediation works-and it works in about 93 percent of the cases-the whole system works, and that means productivity is maintained and tax revenues continue to flow toward the state.

Still, there is a personal side to any finished negotiation, he said. "There's a human side to all of this, a human relations benefit," Lujan said. "There is greater harmony in the work force when everything is settled, and we like to think the parties are better off than when we arrived on the scene."